When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a fifty-minute phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin last weekend, it was only the second time the two leaders had spoken since the war against Hamas started on October 7. The two leaders were once close allies, but no longer: relations between Putin and Netanyahu have now fractured, perhaps beyond repair.
In a statement released immediately after the call, Netanyahu criticized Russia’s close alliance with Iran. The Kremlin blamed Israel for “the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza” — repeating a position expressed by Putin in the past, including in a meeting with his ally and staunch Israel critic, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, back in October.
If Russia has gone cold on Israel, it appears to be warming to Hamas
The breakdown of Putin and Netanyahu’s relationship is no surprise. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, has announced that, because Israel is an “occupying state,” it didn’t have the right to defend itself against Hamas — an organization which, of course, killed, raped and tortured some 1,200 Israelis and abducted dozens of women and children. Nebenzya also blamed Israel for committing “crimes against humanity” in Gaza. What’s more, Russia — which started an illegal war in which tens of thousands of people have died — has supported ceasefire resolutions in the United Nations security council and general assembly.
If Russia has gone cold on Israel, it appears to be warming to Hamas. A Hamas delegation has been warmly welcomed in Moscow and Putin is rumored to have promised them military aid. Hamas, which receives much of its funding, weapons and training from Iran and Qatar, is also still not recognized by Russia as a terror organization.
Before the war in Ukraine, Israel and Russia enjoyed positive strategic relations. The bond and trust between Putin and Netanyahu had allowed Israel to operate against Hezbollah and Iranian targets within Syria and Iran, actions that necessitated quiet consent from Russia.
Relations between the two countries have, however, deteriorated since Israel decided to stand by Ukraine. Israel’s support of Kyiv, under the short-lived centrist coalition government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, was limited and hesitant due to Russia’s influence in the Middle East. But this was still enough to damage relations between the two countries.
When Netanyahu returned to power almost a year ago exactly, he sought to restore relations with Putin. He worried that a strained relationship might push Russia closer to Iran. Netanyahu’s assessment has been proven correct: the strategic alliance between the two pariah states has gone from strength to strength. But even if Israel’s position on Ukraine was different, Russia and Iran would still have grown closer. Increasingly isolated following the invasion of Ukraine, and under strict international sanctions, Russia has grown reliant on Iran for supplying weapons and drones while it struggles militarily.
Israelis used to believe that Putin had a soft spot for Israel, primarily because of the large population of Russian Jews living in the country. However, Putin’s support only lasted as long as Israel served Russian interests.
The war in Gaza has accentuated the division between the global democratic west and authoritarian east. The eastern bloc is headed up by Russia and includes Iran, Syria and Hamas, while Israel has been embraced by the US and other western allies since the start of the war. In Putin’s dichotomous worldview, Israel has now been pushed even further away from Russia and into the arms of those he considers his enemies. As such, the Middle East has become the latest theatre of the twenty-first century’s cold war.
The war in Gaza has served Putin by drawing the world’s attention away from Ukraine and from the atrocities committed by Russian forces. Putin also hopes that the aid given by the Americans to Israel will eat into the aid that Washington provides Ukraine. This is incentivizing Putin to inflame the war in Gaza, along with his ally Iran, which, as well as supporting terror organizations in the West Bank, has been guiding Hezbollah’s attacks against Israel from Lebanon.
In an effort to establish the image of Russia as a champion of human rights and supporter of a peaceful solution to the war, the Kremlin has launched a campaign of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Putin claimed, for example, that “ruling elites” in the US are responsible for the killing of Palestinians, as well as for other events across the Middle East and in Ukraine. He argues that the US benefits from global instability. This is, of course, somewhat ironic: despite pointing the finger at the US as being responsible for violence and instability, it’s Putin himself who has acted as an agent of chaos in the region. He has cozied up to terrorists and supported Iranian militarization efforts for years now.
After the phone call between Netanyahu and Putin, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has, for the first time, condemned Hamas’s attack, recognizing it as an act of terrorism. At the same time, Lavrov also accused Israel of indiscriminately shelling Gaza.
Despite this condemnation, though, Russia’s position is unlikely to change. The Russian state has also called on Hamas to release the remaining Israeli hostages still held in Gaza. This isn’t a sudden show of support for Israel. Instead, it’s meant to help Russia establish itself as a relevant and powerful actor in the Middle East.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.